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This review is taken from PN Review 44, Volume 11 Number 6, July - August 1985.

I'D RATHER HAVE TEA WITH THE BIRDS Penelope Fitzgerald, Charlotte Mew and her friends (Collins) £12.95

It seems odd to include Charlotte Mew's friends in the title of this book, for her life was essentially an anti-social one. Her secretiveness and reticence towards close acquaintances and strangers alike made her a very difficult person to know and intimate friendship impossible. Even Alida Monro, Charlotte Mew's most understanding and devoted friend, whose splendid short memoir is the fullest character study we have of the poet and story-writer, found Charlotte's behaviour often puzzling and erratic. Charlotte would, thought Alida, 'absolutely cut out from her friendship anyone on whom the breath of scandal blew'. She was 'two people'.

One reason for Charlotte's extreme social reticence was her fear - which she blamed on her mother but which was equally her own - of having the family's reduced circumstances exposed. There was the feeling that appearances had to be kept up 'at all costs', both in the maintenance of the Mews' 'good address' in Bloomsbury and in Charlotte's presentation of herself to the outside world. This fussy-maiden-aunt side of Charlotte's character Mrs Fitzgerald characterizes as 'Miss Lotti', and that's who most people met. It was only at home and in her writing that 'Charlotte' can be said to have been entirely herself.

The story of Charlotte Mew's life is a sad one. Her father, an architect from the Isle of Wight, married his employer's snobbish daughter and was never allowed to forget that he had married above himself. Of their seven children three died young ...


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